Since 2010, Republicans have had a majority in both the state House and the state Senate. Many observers believe the House will stay in Republican hands, but the race for control of the Senate will be decided in a handful of districts. District 18- which includes Franklin County and portions of Wake County- is one of them. It pits Democratic incumbent Senator Doug Berger against a former Republican legislative staffer, Chad Barefoot.
Chad Barefoot has never run for office before, but his campaign is spending money like he’s been politicking for years. In September, he bought more than two hundred thousand dollars’ worth of television ads to be aired in the Triangle. This one takes aim at his opponent, incumbent Senator Doug Berger.
Campaign ad: "With unemployment at 9 percent, what’s Doug Berger doing? Ignoring the real problems. He wasted time on silly stuff."
It’s estimated that about six hundred thousand dollars has gone into Barefoot’s campaign— all that for a Senate seat that pays only 14 thousand dollars a year. And Barefoot, who’s 29 years old, hasn’t been in politics for very long.
Ran Coble: "Basically he has served about a year as a policy analyst staffer for Minority Leader Paul Stam in the state House."
Ran Coble heads the North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research, a non-profit, non-partisan think tank in Raleigh. He says no one would mistake Barefoot for an old hand around the legislature.
Coble: "But he’s pretty fresh out of college and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and yet has been able to raise a lot of money in a very short amount of time."
Republican leaders and donors want Barefoot in that seat to consolidate their gains in what is now a veto-proof Republican Senate. And they want four-term Democratic Senator Doug Berger out. Redistricting reshaped Berger’s district earlier this year. It used to include Franklin, Granville, Vance and Warren counties. But now it pairs Berger’s home county of Franklin with portions of Wake, which have fewer Democratic voters. Again, Ran Coble.
Coble: "With 23 percent independents in that district, you got sort of a fourth of the electorate that could walk in and go either way."
This is one of a number of majority Democratic areas Republicans in charge of redistricting reconfigured, hoping to turn them into swing districts. Coble points out that while independents voted heavily for President Obama and other Democrats in 2008, in 2010 more voted for Republicans. The political director for the Senate Republican Caucus didn’t make himself available for an interview. But his counterpart with the senate Democratic Caucus, Ronny Richardson, says Republican leaders are hoping money will make a difference in this race.
Ronny Richardson: "What they’re trying to do is win it by volume alone. That’s obviously a challenge, it makes a difference, but at the same time you have Doug Berger, who’s out there running a very strong ground game."
Richardson won’t reveal the results of polls Berger’s campaign has commissioned. But he says his candidate is holding steady in the race, despite his lack of television ads. Berger is a sixty year old attorney and former worker compensation judge who votes along classic Democratic lines. He’s served on a number of key legislative committees. Richardson calls Barefoot a candidate who is too inexperienced and too young to govern well. But Barefoot doesn’t think that’s a valid argument.
Chad Barefoot: "I think that’s a distraction from the real issues that face the state."
Barefoot points out that he certainly wouldn’t be the first North Carolinian to take on big responsibilities at a young age. He says the former UNC system president, Bill Friday, was one of those people.
Barefoot: "Beloved North Carolinian, did a lot for the UNC system. And he was thirty-six years old when he became president of the university system. Thirty-six years old, Thomas Jefferson was in his 20s when he wrote the Constitution, or helped write the Constitution for the United States of America."
Barefoot says if elected his main focus would be education. He supports education reform, including charter schools as a way of encouraging competition. Barefoot married last year and has a baby on the way. His mother-in-law is a well-known lobbyist who led the campaign to add an amendment to the state constitution making same-sex marriage illegal. But his opponent, Doug Berger, says despite the money Barefoot has spent, the race is still a tossup.
Doug Berger: "Conventional wisdom would say, that when you spend ten dollars to every dollar, then the clear winner is going to be the person who has those resources. But I think that what’s going on is while they have been able to successfully raise concerns among some people about me, they’ve not been able to persuade people that Chad Barefoot is a better alternative."
Berger says he’s fighting hard to reach voters in his district with the help of well-placed volunteers and an intense direct mail campaign. He knows this is a very competitive race, and that independent voters in his district will ultimately decide whether to replace him with a young Republican.